What could have been: a review of Hitchcock’s flawed Torn Curtain

Torn_curtainI recent­ly lis­tened to Alec Baldwin’s pod­cast inter­view of Julie Andrews and thought I mis­heard when she men­tions work­ing on a movie direct­ed by Alfred Hitch­cock. The effect was only height­ened when she men­tioned that her co-star was Paul New­man. Although I could do the math and real­ize the careers of these three leg­ends would over­lap, the younger stars seemed to come from a dif­fer­ent era. Julie Andrews espe­cial­ly seemed a mil­lion miles from the ubiq­ui­tous icy blondes of Hitchcock’s lat­er movies.

The movie is 1966’s Torn Cur­tain. The plot is dri­ven by a clas­sic Hitch­cock MacGuf­fin: a sus­pense sto­ry where we don’t ful­ly under­stand (or even care about) the objec­tive over which everyone’s fight­ing. In this case it’s a for­mu­la for some sort of anti-missile defense rock­et, some­thing called the Gam­ma Five (umm, sure Hitch, what­ev­er you say).

There’s a rare alche­my need­ed to cast famous stars in dra­mat­ic roles. Do it right and the star­dom melts into the char­ac­ter. Hitch­cock can pull it off. We love watch­ing a sur­pris­ing­ly com­plex Cary Grant in North by North­west, part­ly because so much of his lat­er comedic act­ing had becom­ing self-referential (he was almost always play­ing Cary Grant play­ing a char­ac­ter). Some­how Hitch­cock used Grant’s famil­iar­i­ty to turn him into a quick-witted mod­ern Every­man with whom the audi­ence could iden­ti­fy.

But the mag­ic doesn’t work in Torn Cur­tain. From the moment I heard Andrews’ famil­iar chirpy clipped voice from under the bed­cov­ers I won­dered why Mary Pop­pins was engag­ing in post-coital pil­low talk with The Hus­tler. I could not muster enough belief sus­pen­sion to see Paul New­man as a bril­liant math nerd and I cer­tain­ly couldn’t imag­ine him as a lover to prim and fussy Julie Andrews.

The sto­ry revolves around per­son­al and nation­al betray­al and defec­tion but we nev­er real­ly under­stood why Newman’s Michael Arm­strong would defect or why (as we lat­er learn) he has gone into a kind of free­lance espi­onage behind the Iron Cur­tain. The defec­tion of prac­ti­cal­ly per­fect Julie Andrews, who as Sarah Sher­man we now know to be par­tic­u­lar­ly deter­mined and loy­al, feels even more inex­plic­a­ble. As I watched the movie bounce aim­less­ly from one close call to anoth­er my mind drift­ed away to imag­ine the Hol­ly­wood board room where some mogul or anoth­er must have strong-armed Hitch­cock to cast two up and com­ing stars for roles which they didn’t real­ly fit.

Then the plot. It mean­ders. But even more damn­ing­ly, it focused on the wrong lead. Newman’s Michael Arm­strong is pre­dictably lin­ear in his objec­tives. The most inter­est­ing plot turns all come from his assistant/fiancée, Andrews’ Sarah Sher­man. She is full of pluck and intel­li­gence. It’s Sher­man who insists on com­ing along on the ini­tial cruise to Copen­hagen and it’s her sharp eyes that spot the mys­te­ri­ous actions that tip off the com­ing betray­als. She notices Armstrong’s tick­ets, picks up the mys­te­ri­ous book, fer­rets out the true des­ti­na­tion, and then has the chutz­pah to board an East Berlin flight to fol­low her lying and errat­ic boyfriend. Her tena­cious impro­vi­sa­tion remind­ed me more of Grant in North by North­west than any­thing New­man did.

There are some intrigu­ing scenes. The strug­gle with Gromek in the farm­house is fas­ci­nat­ing in its length and has the kind of bril­liant­ly bizarre cam­era angles that could only come from Hitch­cock. The the­ater scene was legit­i­mate­ly nail-biting (though I found myself imag­in­ing Cary Grant ’s face as he real­ized how hope­less their escape had become). One of the most mes­mer­iz­ing scenes was the bus chase — will they have to stop for a pas­sen­ger?!? It’s the the kind of Hitch­cock twist we all love.

After read­ing the spoil­ers from WIkipedia and IMDB, I see that many of my com­plaints have good sources.

  • The basic plot was Hitchcock’s idea, inspired by husband/wife defec­tors Don­ald and Melin­da Maclean and In the fall of 1964, Hitch­cock unsuc­cess­ful­ly asked Vladimir Nabokov to write the screen­play.
  • The orig­i­nal focus was on the female lead (I was right!) The first screen­play was writ­ten by Bri­an Moore, a screen­writer known for strong female char­ac­ters. After Hitch­cock cri­tiqued the script and hired new writ­ers, Moore accused him of hav­ing “a pro­found igno­rance of human moti­va­tion.”
  • For cast­ing, Hitch­cock had orig­i­nal­ly want­ed to reunite North by Northwest’s Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Grant told him he was too old; Hitch­cock then approached Antho­ny Perkins. But…
  • Lew Wasser­mann was the Hol­ly­wood exec who insist­ed on bank­able stars. Hitch­cock didn’t feel they were right for the roles and he begrudged their astro­nom­i­cal salaries and con­strained sched­ules. How is it that Alfred Hitch­cock hadn’t secured total con­trol over his projects at the point in his career?
  • The actors and direc­tors were indeed from dif­fer­ent eras: Newman’s method act­ing didn’t fit Hitchcock’s old school direct­ing style. Hitch­cock used his casts as chess pieces and expect­ed the direct­ing and edit­ing to dri­ve his films. When New­man pressed the direc­tor for Armstrong’s moti­va­tion, Hitch­cock report­ed­ly replied “moti­va­tion is your salary” (can’t you just hear him say­ing that in his famous­ly arch tone?)
  • Hitch­cock didn’t like the way the movie was unfold­ing and shift­ed the atten­tion to Newman’s char­ac­ter part-way through. It’s always a bad idea to tin­ker with some­thing so fun­da­men­tal so late in the game.

I think Julie Andrews could have stepped up to the chal­lenge of act­ing as the main pro­tag­o­nist. If Hitch­cock had treat­ed her as the Cary Grant “Every­man” char­ac­ter — and made New­man stand in as the dumb blonde! — it would have bril­liant­ly turned Hitch­cock on his head. As it is, this movie rates a mid­dling “meh” rat­ing, more inter­est­ing for what it could have been than for what it was.